Fire and Battle in the Gut – the immune response and your long list of foods that cause reactions

It seems like every year around this time, I find myself in a phase of asking myself, “what food am I reacting to?”. After half a decade or more of asking this question annually, and over the years slowly pin-pointing it down, I’ve gotten a little wiser.

William and I have grown a fairly substantial garden every year since 2016, and I’ve had some version of one in community garden plots, on balconies or patios, college rental backyards, and even dorm room windowsills since I left home as a teenager. Even before that, my mom has always grown a large garden, so having super-fresh summer produce has literally been a happening my whole life. My mom’s favorite thing to grow, from my perspective anyway, has always been heirloom tomatoes, so all the big, fat, juicy tomatoes have also been a long-time staple of summer and early fall. Yum.

But for the last several years, it has become apparent that I may like tomatoes, but they don’t quite like me—in the amounts that any tomato-growing person would need to consume them anyway.

So each year I’ve slowly reduced how many tomato plants I’ve grown. This year, instead of pulling the plants after two solid months of heavy tomato production, the thick smoke and hazardous air days earlier this month had me pulling the one plant we grew early. So there was only one month of tomato production, and I gave a bunch away just to keep up.

And yet still, by the time I pulled the plant and sent it to the compost, every time I had a tomato-based meal I was getting itchy ears and hot, flushing of my face within minutes. At the point where these symptoms were the worst, we were also in extremely hazardous air quality—likely even with the blessed indoor air purifiers—and I had been eating other nightshades regularly too; we also grow a few peppers, eggplant, and this year, potatoes—William’s pride and joy.

And while the itchy ears and facial flushing are classic allergic reactions, every year before this, I react later, after many more weeks of eating tomatoes and other nightshades, and with my more consistent go-to digestive symptom: a dully, achy, distracting pain.

Why am I sharing all this? Well, because I know many of you can relate to having various food sensitivities or allergies and not always knowing what you’re reacting to or how to deal with it—and because let’s be clear, eliminating one food after another until you’re down to a handful of “safe” foods is not the best long-term answer.  

For anyone that read my last digestion-focused article, you’ll remember part of the nervous system traverses through the gut. You may have also read that about 70 percent of our immune system is located in or around the digestive system. This is why when our digestive barriers or defenses are worn down, the immune system, whose very job is to determine what is you and what is not—and to attack what’s not—begins to take on substances that ordinarily it shouldn’t, like foods or substances from the environment.

The reason for this is partly because the lining of the gut is only one cell thick. If that sounds especially thin, it is. Just below the gut lining lies a part of the immune system called the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), whose job is to help absorb nutrients. We also have a part of the immune system called the mucous-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) which resides in the mucosal lining, as well as in other mucousy tissues (nose, bronchia, etc.). When the gut and mucous-associated lymphoid tissues’ membranes are structurally strong, then we have more ability to withstand ‘stressors,’ both actual stress and substances that might stress the body internally. When these lymphoid tissues are structurally compromised, then bacteria, food particles that cause a negative reaction, and other inappropriate pathogenic molecules get into our blood. And the cellular version of battle ensues.

Cue reactions to tomatoes, other nightshades, wheat and gluten, dairy, corn, peanuts, soy, and on and on. The immune system turns on against otherwise harmless foods.

One more thing to know before I get into what we can control about this immune response:

There are layers to the immune system with first line defense, second, what follows, etc. Likewise, when we do blood or skin tests for food sensitivities and allergies, there are different substances to test for.
Secretory IgA (sIgA), is the main way that the mucous-associated lymphoid tissue gives the message to the immune system to initiate battle. Secretory IgA are antibodies in the gut mucosa that are on constant alert for foreign substances—think of them as guards for the castle walls of your mucous-immune tissue. They initiate a non-specific response. When the secretory IgA antibodies aren’t showing up to the job or are overwhelmed, the IgG antibodies next kick in. They are what we’ll call a second line of defense and cause reactions to specific foods or substances, but perhaps not immediately. That’s why in the past, I could eat tomatoes for weeks before having any reactions and when those reactions occurred, they were hours or even days after the ‘enemy’ tomato made its appearance at the castle walls.

When IgG antibodies get overwhelmed, it is time for the IgE antibodies. These are what we consider true allergies. That’s the classic itchy throat, swelling, mucous and nasal drip, hives, itchy ears and/or eyes, flushing, and anaphylaxis symptoms. Not what any of us want to experience.

Of what we currently know of the immune system, people don’t develop true IgE allergies until all the other systems have broken down—and when food sensitivities are cleared up—that’s the IgG response—the true IgE allergy response can either partially or fully resolve. Good news when I want to eat a tomato symptom-free, or when you want to go back to enjoying any of the various foods you’ve thought you’d have to avoid forever.

So going back to factors that we can control and/or play a role. They include:

– Genetics. Many conditions such as celiac, inflammatory bowel diseases (crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, etc.), and most other autoimmune conditions have a genetic component. While that can seem discouraging, we are learning more about how to modify gene expression through what’s known as epigenetics—using food, nutrients, and environment (like stress reduction), to help us overcome otherwise ‘risky’ genetics.

– Gut bacteria and dysbiosis. Both “good” gut bacteria in the wrong place, and an imbalance between the amount of beneficial and disease-producing microbes are factors we can control. Examples include bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections. They are far more common than most of us think.

– What we eat on a daily basis. The diet of most individuals is high in refined carbohydrates and poor-quality fats and meats, and too low in fiber, vegetables, whole-grains, beans and legumes, fruit, and nuts and seeds—the very foods that are rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients and feed good gut bacteria.

– Leaky gut. When we get “holes” in that one-cell-thick gut lining, we’re going to experience increased inflammation and breakdowns/battle in the immune system. Stress, of all causes, plays a huge role in this.

Now that you know a little more about the immune system, let me know if you have questions, or if this helped clarify why with healing the gut and turning off the immune system response, you might be able to eat some of the foods you’ve thought you’d have to always avoid.

The immune response and subsequent inflammation is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I shared about the nervous system’s role here, and I’ll explain the other three categories of digestive imbalance in future articles.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

References:
1: Lipski, L. (2012). Digestive Wellness (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

roasted zucchini and crookneck squash with pumpkin seeds, oregano, and olives

I went out to harvest in the garden this morning and after using up about 20 crookneck squash in the last couple days, I harvested a dozen more. And a dozen cucumbers and three tomatoes. I trimmed the tomato plant back a bit so I can see several others are nearly ready, and William on corn duty tells me there are six or more ears that need to be used now. They’ll be as many or more of everything tomorrow.

I somewhat jokingly wrote in an instagram post several weeks back that I’ve found the best way to eat more vegetables is to grow a lot of vegetables. No jokes anymore since at this point in the season, it’s an incredible fact. For me anyways, this goes particularly because even though the romanticism of growing our own has long since worn off, there’s a huge sense of obligation to not waste what we’ve watched growing all season, to not waste the many hours William has spent watering and sifting compost, pulling weeds, and turning over beds.

Me? I mostly just harvest and cook and then take the glory. As is true for most gardeners and farmers, we tend to plant extra of everything because inevitably one or more crops fail– and people who grow things are slightly addicted to growing more things. (A slight problem when the backyard is producing so much). This year so far, nothing has failed. Literally nothing except a slow start and replanting of beets which thankfully won’t be ready until the summer squash, cucumbers, and corn are about done.

Anyhow, one thing I’ve been thinking about all summer is how very little has been stated publicly, in the mainstream US news anyway, about lifestyle factors that can help us through this pandemic season. Eating more vegetables, filling ourselves up on all the colors, nutrients, phytonutrients, and generally eating more whole, looks-like-it-came-directly-from-the-earth, foods can go a long way. I was asked to write a little more in-depth about this topic recently for Territory Run Co., so if you’d like more details on specific foods, nutrients, or lifestyle factors to help through this season (like mindfulness for stress relief), you can find the article here.

Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to figure out how to gift a few harvest extras this week, and chop, roast, sauté, etc. my way through the others. A little Italian flavor inspired, this combination of roasting zucchini and crookneck squash, and topping it with an herby, olive, garlic, and pumpkin seed topping is just one way to add some pizazz to eating your vegetables. If you have a grill basket and would like to take the cooking outside, grilling the squash instead of roasting will be a nice shift in methods.

Roasted Zucchini + Crookneck Squash with Pumpkin Seeds, Oregano, and Olives, serves 4 as a side
Use any type of summer squash you have available. The smaller, less seedy ones have the best texture.

4-8 small to medium summer squash, chopped (enough to fit a sheet pan or baking tray)
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1/4 tsp. salt
20 fresh oregano leaves, finely minced (about two large sprigs)
15 small black olives (about 1/4 cup), rinsed, drained and sliced

  • Preheat your oven to 425 F. Line a baking pan with parchment and then spread the chopped squash evenly, so it’s mostly a single layer. Sprinkle with a little salt and roast until soft and borderline mushy, about 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, lightly toast the pumpkin seeds in a pan on the stovetop, and then remove them to a cutting board. Chop them until they’re in medium-small pieces, small enough to not be able to tell they’re pumpkin seeds, but not super-fine.
  • Mince the garlic and add it to a small dish, along with the pumpkin seeds, salt, minced oregano and olives.
  • When the squash is done roasting, slide it into a serving bowl, and then stir the herby pumpkin seed mixture throughout and serve.

Falafel Loaf, and remedies for our stressful times

I had an idea of something different that I’d share here today but the past few weeks, with the news cycle, panic-stocking, and fear of a pandemic virus circulating, an entirely different reassurance presented itself to me this morning, so I’ll share it with you.

I was listening to a short meditative story on the goddesses of hearth and home, with the primary archetypes being Hestia or Vesta in Greek or Roman mythology. I was reminded that Hestia’s name means hearth, fire and alter, and that where we create warmth in our homes can also be our alters. Literally—where we create our meals can also be our sacred space.

So often when our minds run ahead or circulate around in fear or worry, it helps us to pull our energy down from that space, down from our head and into our body. This is partially why I find so much joy in athletic activity, as the meditation of physical movement is where my mind can more often turn off. And it’s partially why the kitchen is my favorite space in my home, the figurative center of the home, as it often is for those who love to cook.

For most of us, cooking and providing for ourselves and families are tasks that go on in the background of our lives, not tasks that we consider noteworthy or adventurous undertakings. But as Hestia’s name portrays, they can be powerful and sacred tasks, helping us to do what we’d otherwise avoid, drawing our minds down into our physical bodies, tuning into the senses of using our hands, noticing the smells, sounds and flavors of cooking.

As the onslaught of emails about immune health have reminded me in the past few days, combatting our daily stresses—literally not allowing the mind to run away into worries or coulds about the unknown future—is a powerful antidote to the weakening effects of that stress on our immune systems.

As the weather and temperature shifts into spring if you’re in the northern hemisphere, or fall in the southern, traditional medical wisdom tells us that now is a time when the shifting environmental patterns can invite in more physical or mental illness manifestations. I suspect this is contributing even more to the increasing anxiety and nervousness, and outright fear of our neighbors and community members that we’re currently facing.

The best remedies to combat the anxiety and fear are tuning into the body, acknowledging what it is feeling rather than running or distracting away from it, tuning into the senses, cooking nourishing meals, selecting an enjoyable kitchen playlist or podcast to invite in more relaxation, eating warming and nourishing foods, and deep breathing.

Falafel Loaf, serves about 4
-This is my current favorite meal to slowly harken in the flavors and ingredients that support our systems as we shift into spring: pungent vegetables like garlic and onion, spices to support moving the winter sluggishness from our liver and digestion including cumin, coriander, and cardamom, and ample herbs like cilantro for the same. If this particular herb is not your favorite, sub in parsley or mint instead.
-With all the flavors of falafel but with easier prep and the ability to put it in the oven and walk away for a while, I’m really loving this loaf-version of falafel. Plus, I find it allows me to focus on the side ingredients, which in a pinch are sauteed or braised cabbage, and the quick tahini sauce linked below.
– I haven’t tried making this without the egg since I’ve had limited success with egg-free veggie loaves or burgers staying together, but ground up chia or flax seeds would be my suggestion if that’s needed for you.


3 garlic cloves, peeled + roughly chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground cardamom
1 ¾ cup cooked chickpeas or 1 can, drained and drained
1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
3/4 tsp. sea salt + more to taste
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. baking soda
1 egg
¾ cup chickpea flour
¾ cup finely chopped cilantro

Suggestions to serve with:
Tahini Garlic Sauce
Socca
Lettuce and/or sautéed greens
Seasonal braised cabbage

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In a food processor, pulse the garlic, onion, and spices, scraping down sides as needed, until coarsely chopped, 30-45 seconds. Then add the chickpeas and apple cider vinegar, and pulse again briefly. Transfer to a large bowl.
  3. Add the vinegar, salt and pepper, baking soda, egg, chickpea flour and finely chopped cilantro. Gently stir to combine, being careful not to mash the mixture too much. Spoon the mixture into a 8 ½ x 4 in. loaf pan that has been lined with parchment paper. Smooth it down so its even, and then bake until the edges are browned and the center is completely set, about 60-70 minutes.
  4. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool at least 15-20 minutes, remove from the loaf pan onto a cutting board.
  5. To serve, cut into big slices and drizzle garlic tahini sauce on top, serve with greens, socca, or other sides of choice.